Efficient Workouts for the Time-Crunched

We’ve all been there, that race on the horizon that we signed up for 9 months ago looms and there’s just not enough time in the day to fit in all the training we want or feel like we need to do in order to be ready for it. If there were infinite time for us to train we all have an idea of what our ultimate potential might look like, and we all think that we could achieve so much more with extra hours in the day. Well, after being on both sides, I will tell you that more time doesn’t always translate to better fitness or faster times.  Being time crunched can actually benefit your overall fitness in several ways and result in your best performances if you know how to structure your training to get the most out of what you have.

Surprisingly, ample time to train can often have the opposite effect on our fitness. Many of us have the tendency to use all the available time we have to reach our goals and end up over trained. Time constraints can help us avoid burnout and overtraining. Or, if you’re like me and tend to procrastinate when faced with excess time and without a set daily schedule, we putz around until it’s too late and don’t have time to get in all that we wanted. I tend to be more motivated the busier I am, the more time crunched, and with more on my plate.

Increase the Intensity

Not everyday can be, or should be, a hard workout. Easy days are absolutely necessary for us to improve our fitness after those hard days that break us down. However, if you’re really time crunched you need to make every run count.  The key is to reduce your overall training volume and increase the intensity of your runs. This works well with a short term goal. Eventually you’ll need a period of easy to moderate aerobic running to restore your aerobic capacity for long term fitness. Doing too much high aerobic to anaerobic work over a long period of time will have a detrimental training effect by reducing your endurance, but short term it is quite effective training. This results in an efficient workout regimen without much wasted time.  Below is a sample week of higher intensity training that accommodates a reduction in overall training time. You can apply your personalized volume and paces to the general structure of the week.

Start Smart and Slow

A few minutes on the front end will reap rewards on the back end. When we do have an intense session of intervals to do, professional athletes can take an hour or more just to warm up and prepare their body for the actual work they need to get done. With the end of the lunch hour approaching, you have to train fast and most of us don’t want to spend time on a warm-up routine, we just want to get some good work in. The trade off is that a good warm-up will help you get more quality work from the workout and reduce injury. How do we do both? By creating an efficient routine that works for you. A few minutes of jogging is crucial. It helps get blood flowing to muscles and oxygen circulating through our blood. Second, prepare your muscles for hard work with a series of active-isolated stretches and dynamic stretches that can be done in about 5-7 minutes. Hit the four main muscle groups that you’ll be using: glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads. You’ll be ready to roll in no time and will help reduce your injury risk.

You may have also noticed that when you head out the door for a run you need a few minutes to “work the cobwebs out” until you get into a running groove. This warm-up period helps your muscles reactivate and “learn” how to operate from the day before. Taking a few minutes before you even head out the door to work through a series of exercises can help reduce this period and make your run more productive. This series will be different for each person based on what your personal needs are, but for example, it might be a quick hip opening exercise, an isometric glute activation exercise, and eccentric calf dips. I especially like the hip mobility exercises from the Myrtl routine that you can find online.

Don’t Neglect the Details

The other aspect of training that takes time and often falls by the wayside is self-care: icing, rolling, massage, strength work, and general recovery time. This is often the first thing to go when we run out of time, but often what is actually going to keep us healthy throughout a training cycle so that we can make it to the next start line. When I’m coaching athletes I prefer that they make the time for these smaller details and sacrifice an easy run or a few more miles if they need to. Finding an hour block of time to fit this in can be difficult, so I find squeezing it into my evenings after the kids are in bed is the best time to take a few minutes and focus on myself. It might only be 10 minutes a night, but I cycle through rolling, strength, and yoga to hit all my bases each week. Even 10 minutes can have a big impact.

If you’re motivated, there’s no reason why life has to get in the way of your athletic goals. While making the Olympic team may require full time commitment, you can still find great success using the time you do have by optimizing how you exercise. It may take a little more focus and diligence to continue pushing your body everyday when time is short, but athletic successes are some of the most rewarding, helping us perform better in our day job, relieving stress, and building healthier, happier people.

Sample Workouts with No Wasted Time:

Progression Run – 1/3 easy pace, 1/3 progression from easy pace to threshold pace, 1/3 at threshold pace.

Fartlek Run – 10min warm-up jog, start with a long (4-5min) interval at threshold effort, continue with 30sec-3min hard intervals and 15sec-2min jogging rest intervals until the workout is over.

Hill Workout – 10min warm-up jog, 3min hill intervals, 10min cool-down jog. Start the hills at a conservative effort and increase effort on each interval. Do as many as possible in given time.

Sample Week of Increased Intensity:

Sunday – Off

Monday – Progression run, start easy and gradually increase pace in time allotted

Tuesday – Short interval day or hills, short warm-up and cool-down, fit in as many short intervals (30sec-2min) as there is time for at high intensity

Wednesday – Off or use this day for self care

Thursday – Long interval day, Short warm-up and cool-down, fit in as many long intervals (3-7min) as there is time for at moderate to high intensity

Friday – Progression or steady effort run

Saturday – Long run day

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Max King
Max lives in Bend, OR and is a Salomon Running athlete. He’s still working on his weaknesses but gave up on being a professional basket weaver a long time ago. Check out his adventures around the running world at @MaxKingOR.